The Fugitive, Part 1 - short story

When he finally took his eyes off the screen he acknowledged my presence and said, “Stand to the side. You are wanted by the police.”

 Lahav 433, the headquarters of the Commercial Crimes Fraud Unit.  (photo credit: FBI)
Lahav 433, the headquarters of the Commercial Crimes Fraud Unit.
(photo credit: FBI)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

For a few years, I was flying fairly frequently between Toronto and Tel Aviv. Ostensibly it was for business, but the business never really materialized and the frequent flying proved to be more about my desire to reconnect with Israel and to plan my eventual return.

After changing my mind about buying property in Caesarea, and after a deal in Jerusalem fell through, I decided to purchase an apartment in Tel Aviv. If anyone is yet unfamiliar, Tel Aviv is like a city-state within Israel: it is young, dynamic, mostly secular, and possesses, not least among its attributes, a spectacular beach. It represents both the heartbeat of Israel and at the same time is unlike anything else in the country. There is Tel Aviv, and then there is Israel, and seldom the twain shall meet. In short, an island unto itself in the stormy seas of the Middle East.

Eventually, I found the apartment I was looking for. It had a magnificent sea view that not even the most unscrupulous real estate mogul could obstruct. I spent maybe two and a half minutes walking through the three rooms before I told the agent that I wanted to make an offer. To this day, I can’t believe that it took me less time to buy that apartment than to buy a shirt or a pair of socks, but I was single at the time, and what do single men really know anyway about what to look for in buying a home?

One thing I did notice was that in the living room of the model, furnished apartment – the last unit left for sale – sat a middle-aged man smoking a cigarette while watching an Arabic channel on TV. The agent exchanged a few words in French as we passed by.

“Who is he?” I asked the agent.

 Former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak confers with Gen. Antoine Lahad, then-commander of the South Lebanon Army, on February 1, 2000. (credit: REUTERS) Former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak confers with Gen. Antoine Lahad, then-commander of the South Lebanon Army, on February 1, 2000. (credit: REUTERS)

The agent waved off my question, her hand in the air, reluctant to disclose any details.

“That man looks very familiar,” I said.

As we exited the apartment and she closed the door behind us, she whispered in my ear. “That’s General Lahad,” she said, “you know, from Lebanon.”

Indeed, I did know. General Antoine Lahad was the leader of the South Lebanon Army and an ally of Israel until Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to pull all of Israel’s troops out of Lebanon in the middle of the night, one night, in May, 2000. The Israeli troops returned home happily, but General Lahad’s army promptly disintegrated. Many of the Christian militia were killed by their emboldened enemies from Hezbollah. In my criminal and immigration-law practice in Toronto, I had already represented several former SLA members who had fled Lebanon and made refugee claims in Canada.

Some of the SLA and their families were afforded protection by Israel. Unfortunately, many others were abandoned and a good portion paid with their lives. Given the picturesque view of the Mediterranean sea from the apartment balcony, it seemed that someone was taking rather good care of the unemployed ex-general. Personally, I felt kind of badly having to be the one to evict him from his room with a view, but I eventually reconciled myself to accepting that such absurdities were more often than not the norm in the Middle East.

Several months later I returned to take possession of the property. Coinciding with the acquisition in Israel, I received an invitation to attend the premiere of my play, Einstein, in Spanish, at Barcelona’s innovative Teatro Versus. I was excited about attending the performance, and about setting foot for the first time in Spain, a country that I had longed to visit for many years.

But first the apartment. I had arranged to meet my friend Moshe, who was also acting as my real estate lawyer, at the airport. Groggy, after the nearly 12-hour flight, I approached the customs desk with my passport.

The officer scrutinized the passport and checked his computer screen. I waited for the usual thump-thump sound of my passport being stamped, but the protracted silence caused me to look up again. The agent was staring intently at the screen and held a phone to his ear. When he finally took his eyes off the screen he acknowledged my presence and said, “Stand to the side. You are wanted by the police.”

“Stand to the side. You are wanted by the police.”

To say my heart skipped a beat would be putting it mildly. I had never been singled out by customs before, and my mind was racing with all sorts of rational and irrational possibilities. Perhaps I had an outstanding traffic fine that had snowballed into a court order? Perhaps I had not cleared my status with the Israeli army, and was now wanted for failing to report for years of mandatory reserve duty? Or might it have to do with the recent acquisition of the apartment? Had I failed to pay one of the myriad taxes due to the various layers of Israeli bureaucracy?

As the wait grew longer, so did my list of probable causes. Maybe my ex-wife, who had raked me over the coals with a forensic accountant while going through divorce proceedings a decade ago, had re-hired the unsuccessful mole to investigate my new home purchase? Maybe, God forbid, on my last visit, I had unknowingly run over a bicyclist, motorized cyclist, electric scooter or pedestrian, and was now going to be arrested and vilified for a hit and run homicide – and see my picture on the front page of tomorrow’s newspapers – in both Israel and Canada!

Like the German writer Goethe, I was beginning to think that there was no crime of which I could not conceive myself guilty, and the longer I was made to wait the more havoc my imagination was wreaking. Finally, the interminable wait was over as an expressionless police officer appeared. He took my passport from the Customs Officer and handed me what appeared to be a summons. I read the words aloud: “You are ordered to appear at the Commercial Crimes Fraud Unit on Monday morning at 9:00 a.m.”

Bewildered, I looked at the police officer.

“Fraud?” I asked.

“You ought to know,” he said.

“But I don’t...”

The policeman shrugged his shoulders. He turned to walk away, while still holding my passport in his hand.

“My passport!” I shouted after him. Looking over his shoulder I heard him say, “You can pick it up on Monday morning,” and then quickly added, “that is, if they agree to give it to you.”

I had already phoned Moshe and told him I was being “delayed,” and he suggested we meet up later at the apartment.

Like a zombie, I entered a taxi and gave the driver my new address. What was supposed to be a homecoming celebration was rapidly turning into a funeral wake.

Moshe handed me the keys. He could see I was in no mood for a celebration, and decided that the next morning he would try calling the officer in charge to try and find out what this was all about.

After a sleepless night, I heard the telephone finally ring.

“You’re not going to believe this,” Moshe said, “but they are adamant that this is very serious.”

“What is very serious?” I asked.

“They’re not saying. So I’ve booked you an appointment for a consultation with a criminal lawyer.”

“Criminal lawyer? But I am a criminal lawyer! No one has even told me what crime I have alleged to have committed. Seriously? I need to hire a lawyer? How much is that going to cost?”

“He’s a good friend, so he’s agreed to reduce his fee to a thousand dollars.”

I wondered how much more he would charge if they weren’t such good friends.

“Is this a shakedown?”

“I’m not sure what that means.”

Moshe looked perplexed.

“Never mind. Well, I guess we better get ourselves some of his friendly advice.”

A thousand dollars later, I didn’t know anything more than before, nor it seemed did the criminal lawyer. I may also have been a lawyer, but I was beginning to sympathize with the clients.

“What about the play opening in Barcelona?” I suddenly remembered. “My flight is next week.”

“I spoke to the officer,” Moshe said. “I’m afraid the trip is off.”

“But they are expecting me! The trip has been paid for by the Canadian Government. The ambassador will be there. How am I going to explain this?”

Moshe shook his head. “All I know is that until the inspector meets with you, and is satisfied there is no flight risk, he is not prepared to lift the travel ban against you.”

“Travel ban?” Suddenly the gravity of the situation was setting in. “Are you suggesting this does not only mean Barcelona, but that I may not be able to fly back to Canada as scheduled? I have court cases that are scheduled in two weeks. Clients that are expecting me. My 11-year-old daughter needs me to drive her and her car pool to school!”

For the next two days I was a wreck. I had zero appetite. I couldn’t sleep.

I decided to go to Jerusalem, to visit the Kotel, where Jews have been pouring out their public and private worries for centuries.

From the Kotel I paid a visit to Rabbanit Orly, a pious, religious woman who operated a nonprofit home for troubled and homeless young women in Jerusalem. On her office door was a sign: Tzedakah Meytzil Mimavet, meaning, “charity saves from death.” While I may not actually have been facing death, I had indeed been experiencing a definite form of paralysis since my arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Rabbanit Orly advised me to say a certain Hebrew prayer every day, and assured me it would be a “segula” – a good omen – and one that would have the desired effect of making the problem go away.

It couldn’t hurt, I thought. Ironically, I began to feel more confident in her esoteric advice than I did with the criminal lawyer’s bleak consultation. While she did not ask for any money, I decided it was worth at least as much as his, and besides, she was so much more deserving of it.

The next morning I found the Commercial Crimes Unit located at the back of a sprawling police station off a busy thoroughfare in South Tel Aviv. I was directed to a flight of stairs and told to knock on the first door to my right. A male voice told me to enter.

Inspector Mizrahi was on the phone and motioned for me to take a seat opposite his desk. He looked me over and put down the phone.

“I should really give you a formal caution,” he ominously began, “but I will start with a few preliminary questions.”

He opened a thick file that was on his desk and pulled out some legal size, typewritten papers.

“Is that your name that appears on the bottom of the page?” he asked.

Indeed it was I told him.

“And who’s signature is that?” he asked.

I tried to discern the Hebrew handwriting.

“Not mine,” I said.

“Did you not act as a lawyer for the vendor in selling an apartment on Einstein Street in Tel Aviv?” he asked pushing the agreement closer to me.

Einstein Street. Einstein. The same name as my play about the famous physicist. “Man plans and God laughs” goes the Yiddish saying. It was becoming clear to me now. Someone had impersonated me.

“Did you conduct a real estate transaction involving a house on Einstein Street?” Mizrahi raised his voice, demanding to know.

“I do not practice real estate law, and, in fact, while I am qualified to do so, I don’t practice any law in Israel,” I said.

“But here is your lawyer’s stamp,” he pointed to a stamp at the bottom of the page, which, indeed, had my name on it.

“That is my name, but that is not my stamp,” I said. “And that is definitely not my signature.”

Inspector Mizrahi proceeded to pull out some half a dozen other such contracts which purportedly bore my signature and stamp. It seems that someone was actively selling properties belonging to absentee owners who resided abroad. The unfortunate owners would not discover the fraudulent sales sometimes for half a year or longer until they came to Israel on a visit. They would enter their apartments only to find strangers there who occupied the premises and claimed that they had purchased the same apartments. When to their shock the owners learned that their properties had been sold from under their noses, the paper trail in every instance led to the same lawyer who had ostensibly acted on their behalf. That lawyer, to my chagrin, had fraudulently assumed my identity. A swindle and a scam, indeed.

“But that’s not me,” I protested.

“How do I know that’s not you?” asked Mizrahi. “It has your name and stamp on each sale.”

“But the stamp is a fake.”

“Can you prove it?”

Now how was I to prove that the person apparently masquerading as me, signing legal deeds in my name, and with an official-looking stamp that bore my name was not the real me?

Just then I noticed the date of the sale on the bottom of the page. July 22 happened to be my daughter’s birthday, and I remembered taking her out for dinner in Toronto nearly 10,000 kilometers away from the scene of the alleged crime.

“Why don’t you start by checking the dates?” I asked the inspector.

Nodding pensively in agreement, Mizrahi excused himself and returned after a few minutes with several pages of a computer printout. Not a single one of my visits coincided with any of the various dates on which the bogus contracts had been signed. Why the inspector could not have checked out this basic information before detaining me at the airport, obtaining an order preventing my leaving the country, and causing me to unnecessarily drop $1,000 on a criminal lawyer was beyond me.

Accepting that I could not have been the perpetrator of the canny frauds, Mizrahi let me in on a few of the other details. The savvy con artist advertised the properties were for sale and managed to access keys to the houses for the purpose of showing them to prospective buyers. He claimed to be the lawyer for the vendors, and though he maintained that he was depositing the purchasers’ payments into the lawyer’s trust account, the funds actually went directly to the con man’s temporary account. Eventually, the absentee owners (several of whom were from France) would return from abroad only to find complete strangers living in their apartment.

I have long marveled at some of these rather innovative Israeli scams that seem to combine homegrown Israeli chutzpah with the formidable Jewish mind to produce a variety of emboldened and original stings.

For example, there was a time I stopped to pick up a soldier in uniform hitchhiking at the side of the highway. “Wish me mazal tov,” he said as he entered the car. I did just that, and he joyfully related that his pregnant wife had just been ushered into the delivery room while he was in the midst of his army reserve duty. In all the excitement it seems that he forgot his wallet back at the base and was now relying on the kindness of strangers to speedily transport him to the hospital in his hometown of Eilat, at the southernmost tip of the country.

I dropped him off at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv and took a chance on him for the price of a bus fare, about $30 at the time. He gushed with gratitude and insisted that he would gladly repay me, and invited me to stop by his family’s restaurant on a visit to Eilat. He gave me a warm embrace and blessed me like a brother.

It so happened that I was scheduled to be in Eilat the following week, and so, mostly out of curiosity, I decided to look up the new father and the restaurant that was part of a once popular franchise called Mi va Mi.

I pause here to say that whenever I tell this story to my friends from North America, most of them agree that they would have done the same. When I present my Israeli friends with the same scenario, they invariably break out in laughter and ask incredulously, “You didn’t fall for it, did you?”

So when I arrived in Eilat, hoping to prove the local cynics wrong, I asked the first person on the street if he would kindly direct me to the popular Mi va Mi restaurant.

“Are you sure it is called Mi va Mi?” inquired the gentleman on the boardwalk. “Because that restaurant closed down maybe 25 years ago,” he said, leaving me feeling like the dupe that I was.

Fast forward, and my wife is in the maternity wing of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv years later, recuperating from having given birth the previous day. I stepped out for some air and an elderly man approached me and asks me if I could help him, or rather, his friend. It seems that he had brought his friend with a broken leg to the hospital, but the orthopedic ward was full so he was advised to go to another hospital located 20 kilometers away. He was short of cash for the taxi ride. He insisted on showing me his identity card, and claims to be devoutly religious. He assures me it would be a tremendous mitzvah to help his friend receive the medical treatment of which he was in urgent need.

After the fiasco in Eilat, the thought crossed my mind that I may be being set up for another sting. But the old man looked sincere, and even volunteered to show me his identity card that verified he was 75 years old, a venerable age and an unlikely profile for your typical con man. And besides, what charlatan volunteers to show you his genuine photo ID before committing a crime? Why, even his family name, Levi, attested to his noble heritage as a descendant of the priestly class of Levites that once served in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Levi requested the equivalent of $40 for the taxi ride, but I only gave him half, for my generosity had been subdued by the previous scam that sadly tainted my trust in humankind going forward.

I probably would not have thought anything more of this incident had my wife not returned to the hospital the following week for further tests. By the entrance stood an old man with a pair of crutches in his hand.

“Well I’ll be darned, if that isn’t old Mr. Levi,” I said to myself, as I approached the stooped figure by the door. I decided to stand with my back to him in order that he might not recognize me if he was to start soliciting funds. Sure enough, he snuggled up to me in a manner of minutes and addressed his plea to my ear about his friend with the broken leg who was in sore need of a taxi fare to a hospital on the other end of town.

“Why Mister Levi,” I turned around to greet him as he released the crutches to my open hand. “How many friends with broken legs do you have? You had better be careful that you don’t wind up with a broken leg yourself because you already cheated me once with this sipur savta (grandmother’s fable).” He crouched and cowered with his hands hiding his face, fearing I was going to strike him.

“You are a disgrace to the Levites,” I said and threw the crutches down. By this time some bystanders had gathered and started to yell at me for appearing to be abusing a defenseless old man.

“I’m just a poor, sick, old man.” Levi took his cue and started to whimper. “All I want is some small change for something to eat.”

Immediately, several bystanders started to empty their pockets as Levi kissed their hands oozing sincerity and gratitude.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” said a stocky woman with a thick Russian accent, before hitting me with her leather handbag.

But I digress. Back in Inspector Mizrahi’s office, he was still studying the computer print-out of my flights.

“Indeed, not one of them matches any of the transaction dates,” he said, and then added, perhaps a little disappointed, “I guess you can go.”

“Is that all?”

“Unless you have a confession to make,” he said, only half-joking. “I can still prepare the indictment.”

As I turned to leave, he pulled me back by the sleeve, “You’re not pulling a fast one here are you?”

Indeed, there is nothing more despised in Israeli culture than to be perceived to be a sucker. There is even a name for it, a frier (rhymes with liar). From his reaction, it was apparent that even senior police inspectors have experienced what it is like to be duped.

“What about the travel ban?” I asked. “I have a flight to Barcelona this evening.”

“Bon voyage,” he said gruffly, handing me back my passport.

It was perhaps six months later that I received a fax from Moshe. An article had appeared in the local paper about a disabled lawyer who despite being confined to a wheelchair, managed to bilk a number of “clients” out of their life savings in a series of fraudulent real estate schemes.

I called Mizrahi.

“Yes, we got the scoundrel,” he confirmed.

“But how did he get to me? Why me?”

“You can visit him in prison and ask him yourself,” Mizrahi said. “He will spend lots of time there, at least five years,” he added, before tersely hanging up the phone.

So not only was my impersonator a practicing lawyer, but he was disabled, too? Did he really believe that he would be able to continue to get away with such brazen offenses and not be caught? And how did the disability figure into the scam? Were those who were duped more trusting, more easily made into friers, because of the shyster’s disability?

I never did visit my impersonator in prison. But I have remained curious ever since as to how and why he came to choose and impersonate me. What did I do to deserve such unwanted attention? Was it merely a coincidence, or was it a deeper matter of karma brought about to extract an emotional payment from me for a mistake, a sin or an offense that I had previously committed? How could I know? And why was the scene of the crime located on “Einstein Street,” as if I was being telegraphed a clue or being winked at from above?

On the late-night flight to Barcelona, I relaxed with a shot of Scotch on the rocks and kicked off my shoes. Already I was wondering what new adventure was awaiting me in Barcelona. I closed my eyes, and before the ice had melted drifted into the most peaceful sleep I had in a week.  ■

©2022Gabriel Emanuel